Behind the R&B/Pop sensation: NE-YO on Coke Studio Africa, Empire & Songwriting

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 10.36.53 PM“Let your passion be your focal point –that’s my secret to success,” NE-YO tells me. I am the last to interview him in Kenya and thankful that I didn’t run out of time. If I did, I’d still probably interview him. As the Entertainment/Music Publicist of his hosts Coke Studio Africa (CSA), I am working in collaboration with his Publicist Afrika and so far we’ve had a successful day managing NE-YO’s first press conference and interview spree in Nairobi.

Meeting and closely interacting with NE-YO has been a dream come true for me. Earlier on in the day, right after my first meeting with him, I tell him how much of a fan I go way back. “When In My Own Words came out in 2006, it was around my gap year before starting university and that was everything I was jamming to,” I tell him. He seems genuinely impressed. We talk more about work. I introduce myself to him better and explain the concept of Coke Studio Africa and what’s expected of him at the press conference.

While sitting across him at CSA’s cozy Behind the Music studio space for the interview, I can’t help but feel like he’s jumped right out of YouTube. From So Sick, Hate that I Love You, When You’re Mad, Sexy Love, She Knows, Coming with You and Lazy Love – I am such a die-hard NE-YO fan. I hope I don’t fuck up. Thankfully I end up with a sweet interview.

Home Away from Home

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 10.39.22 PMNE-YO’s first time in Nairobi, Kenya is memorable. He says, “Everybody I’ve come in contact with has been head over heels with the friendliness, love and niceness. I feel loved.” The American superstar is Coke Studio Africa season three’s main guest star. “I’ve been put in the presence of five [Maurice Kirya, Wangechi, Ice Prince, Dama Do Bling and Alikiba] amazing artists representing five countries [Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, Mozambique and Tanzania, respectively] to create an amazing song. We’ve done just that. I honestly feel like I’ve known them all my life because we share the same passion. I look forward to the performance of this song later on in the season,” he says, adding “This is my first time in this part of the continent but I definitely plan to come back. I want to see what Kenya really has to offer and get acquainted with more artists from here.”

The third season of Coke Studio Africa premieres October 21st

Music + Art + TV = Art at its Best

“Don’t do visual arts or sing for money. Those things need to be done with a passion. In anything that you love and do – you need to enjoy doing it. If you do it well someone will enjoy it too and pay you for it. Do what you do from your heart,” says NE-YO. The accomplished musician has to date produced six studio albums and featured in several blockbuster films. NE-YO has won three Grammies including Best Contemporary R&B Album for his 2008 album: Because of You. He’s since founded his imprint company: Compound Entertainment, which he speaks highly of at the press conference. As my moderation comes to a close, he crashes my vote of thanks message adding, “And shout out to Compound – without them I wouldn’t be here.”

He’s got fans in anticipation of his new role as music producer of the second season of Empire. “I can’t give away too much but I’ve definitely been a fan of the show from the very beginning,” he says, revealing, “Really excited to be working with just about everybody that does music on the show this season. I am working mostly with Jamal and Hakeem. I love to be part of the machine and what the show is doing for music.”

The second season of Empire premieres September 23rd

NE-YO seems to be living the celebrity life – what many artists are chasing at if not the money. But sitting with him and connecting makes me realise the more that even superstars can be such ordinary people. He says, “When people meet me they are like you’re so down to earth but for real the celebrity thing is just a title. Don’t do anything for money. Making ends meet shouldn’t be the motivating factor of why you’re doing what you’re doing. There are a multitude of things that you can do in this planet but art should never be in that category.”

Songwriting – Let me Love You

 Every song that I’ve written in the realm of love be it the good or the bad side have all come from specific people and relationships that I screwed up or that other people screwed up. The unfortunate thing is songwriters will always explore the negative side of relationships. I keep it in that realm because everybody goes through it. It doesn’t matter if you’re the richest person in the world or have a ballad to your name, there is that special person to you and it’s gonna go good or bad – that’s just the reality of life.”

Even before NE-YO’s 2006 debut album – In My Own Words – birthed an R&B game changer, he had already built a name for himself as a masterful songwriter of the new R&B era – post 90s writers like R. Kelly and Babyface. NE-YO has written mega R&B hit records like Marquez Houston’s That Girl (2003), Mario’s Let me Love You (2004), Beyonce’s Irreplaceable (2006) and Rihanna’s Russian Roulette (2009). He’s written several songs for other artistes too, even for Michael Jackson before his passing. And now he’s held onto the songs so as not to be disrespectful to the memory of the King of Pop.

NE-YO says, “Let me love you is one of the very few co-writes I’ve ever done. Shout out to [the Australian singer/songwriter] Sia – the incredible artist and songwriter. The initial premise of the song came from her personal experience and things she was going through, in regards to self – love. She was going through a period where ‘let me love you until you learn to love yourself’ tagline dealt with some of her dealings with the people who helped her get to a better place.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 10.41.23 PMI am amazed by the chance and opportunity to meet NE-YO. It’s really so inspiring. I grew up in a small town, watching MTV videos and listening to good music but never did I ever even imagine meeting NE-YO, let alone having to work closely with him and his team. He tells me, “I am a person who gives people the respect that I expect to get back and just live my life.” Thank you Coke Studio Africa for the chance.

As I wrap up the interview, I want to know what kind of things NE-YO likes to do when he’s not around the world working and touring. “When I am not all over the place, my typical day is with my kids Madeline (4) and Mason (3). I spend a lot of my free time with them. They are not old enough to move around with me yet but as soon as they are, I will take them with me. If I am not with them, I go to the studio, movies or restaurants—I am a person first.”

NE-YO says that he has plans to work with Coke Studio Africa’s 5 artists past the song recording. He’s now eyeing the Coke Studio Africa season premiere, his stint on Empire and his seventh album – “coming very soon.” As for die-hard NE-YO fans, he left you a message: “From the bottom of my heart I just wanna thank y’all for being real and regular people. The celebrity thing is cool but I just thank you all for appreciating the music and letting me be who I am and letting me live my dream. Thanks for the support. I will keep delivering quality entertainment to the world.”

BONUS: Watch my interview with NE-YO for KBC’s Grapevine 🙂